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An Incorrect Interpretation

The Letter, Issue 69/60, Summer/Autumn 2015, Pages 63 - 68


Audrey McAleese

This paper explores Ruth Lebovici’s question as to whether or not she has made an incorrect interpretation.[1] Lacan’s critique offers insight into the possible role Lebovici played in the transitory perversion provoked in her patient in the course of his analysis with her. But the probing question for the analyst as to what interpretation is, remains to be grappled with in the direction of the treatment.

Keywords: interpretation; Ruth Lebovici; transitory perversion; phantasy; castration anxiety; transference/countertransference; the signifier; the laws of the unconscious

Ruth Lebovici (1913-2003) - from maths teacher to psychoanalyst

Ruth Roos was born in Alsace and raised in a traditional Jewish family. A gifted student , she became a maths teacher. In 1942 she married Serge Lebovici (1915-2000) who later became a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and president of the International Psychoanalytical Association. After the war Lebovici chose to follow her husband’s career and trained as a psychoanalyst.

The Nazi Occupation of France was devastating for her and her family. In August 1942 Lebovici went to the Gestapo in Paris to try and save her Jewish father-in-law, Solo Lebovici, a well-known doctor of Romanian origin. It was her decision not to wear the yellow star that saved her life. The Germans admonished her for marrying a Jew and advised her to divorce him. Solo Lebovici died in Auschwitz. Lebovici’s father, Charles Roos, four uncles and aunts and three cousins were deported in June 1944 and died in concentration camps. During the Occupation her husband was protected by Communist resistants. After the war she trained as an analyst with Marc Schlumberger and was supervised by Jacques Lacan. Like her husband, Lebovici was a member of the Société Psychanalytique de Paris and remained there after the 1953 split when Lacan and Daniel Lagache co-founded the Société Francaise de Psychanalyse.

Transitory Sexual Perversion in the Course of a Psychoanalytic Treatment (1956)

In 1956, Lebovici’s paper, Transitory Sexual Perversion in the Course of a Psychoanalytic Treatment, was published in a psychoanalytic journal in Belgium.[2] The paper is a clinical case study of a twenty three year old neurotic man with phobic manifestations, who was in analysis with her over a five-year period (1949-1954) and whom she called Yves. Interestingly, and in marked contrast to medical treatment today, the referral note from the patient’s doctor states, ‘The neurotic attitude to which the disorder bears witness deserves to be analysed. I believe that this subject should only be given psychoanalytic treatment.’[3] Yves is a trainee helmsman in the merchant navy when he develops a severe preoccupation that he is too tall and that people are laughing at him. He abandons his training and locks himself up at home. He suffers other minor preoccupations, such as the fear of his shoes being too small and the sleeves of his jacket too short. His mother’s attempt at a cure was to procure him a mistress who was fifteen years older than the patient.

Yves comes to the first sessions with his body bent forward. His worried parents enquire if, in fact, he should be examined by an orthopaedic surgeon. A repetitive dream presents in the first year and becomes important in the treatment. The dream is described as follows: ‘Dream (concerning a dreampursuit, Yves talks about this repetitive dream); a man in armour attacks him from behind with a kind of gasmask which brings to mind a fly spray and which would suffocate him.’[4] The analyst interprets the man in armour as the phallic mother. The interpretation provokes a perverse reaction which troubles the analyst. She is aware that she plays a part in the patient’s reaction. The question Lebovici poses in her paper is whether she has made an incorrect interpretation which has resulted in a three year period of perverse phantasy on the part of her patient with some acting out. First, Yves imagines himself urinating while being observed by a woman; then the position is reversed and Yves is observing the woman urinating. Finally, the acting out of the phantasy takes place when Yves discovers a cinema in the Champs Elysees where he can observe women urinating. The phantasy is erotic and masturbatory, resonant of the beating phantasy in Freud’s A Child is Being Beaten where the phantasy of being beaten by her father comes to be replaced by her observing a child other than herself, being beaten.[5]

Lacan’s critique

Lacan examines Lebovici’s paper on two occasions, once in the week of 19 December 1956 of his Seminar IV. La relation d’objet,[6] and again in The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of its Power.[7] He considers Yves’ transitory perversion to be the ‘phantasmic crystallization of an element that was evidently a component part of the subject.’[8] This introduces us to Freud’s theory on infantile sexuality. In The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality Freud explains how the child is polymorphously perverse with the sexual instinct attaching to the erotogenic zones of the mouth, the anus, the skin.[9] Other component parts of the instinct such as looking (voyeurism) and being looked at (exhibitionism) have free rein until they come under the unifying sway of the genital drive at puberty. Some of these component parts may remain behind due to fixation, erupting again in later life. In the case of Yves, it should be noted that the transitory perversion is not strictly speaking a perversion since it is susceptible to rupture, as when the usher catches the patient in the cinema and the voyeurism stops. What then has caused the patient to move from phantasy to an acting out of the phantasy, both in his relationship with the analyst in the analysis and outside the analysis in his voyeuristic practices in the cinema toilets?

What was the analyst’s false move? Lacan situates it in the transference where the analyst’s counter-transferential position produced the interpretation of a phallic mother. In the analysis Lebovici further ventures to interpret the transference as maternal and the analyst as the castrating mother.

Yet Yves’ history shows the mother to be a procuress rather than a prohibiting phallic mother. This gives rise to further questions such as, what may have triggered Yves’ anxiety about being too tall, about his shoes being too small for him and his sleeves too short. His helmsman’s training takes place in an all-male environment, suggesting that his breakdown was linked to problems with his sexual identity and a challenge to his subjectivity. Withdrawn from the world and literally bent over by his fear of being too tall, Yves returns to live at home where he becomes completely inactive -– apart from the visits to the mistress procured by his mother.

His phobic anxiety, initially interiorised, becomes exteriorised in his repetitive dream. While Lacan defines the phobic object as ‘an all purpose signifier to fill the lack in the Other,’[10] the man in armour, specific to this patient’s dream, is, according to him, not the phallic mother but rather ‘a marvellously illustrated substitute for an entirely deficient paternal image...The Subject is revealed to fear being tracked and suffocated in the dark by this man in armour...’[11] The patient’s anxiety is castration anxiety - anxiety that Lacan explains in Seminar V not only in terms of the separation of the child from the mother but also of the mother from the child.[12] Like little Hans, Yves is dangerously close to his mother.[13] We learn that when his father leaves to fight in the war, thirteen year old Yves shares a bed with her.

The progress of the case

To return to the analyst’s role, counter-transference for Lacan is imaginary. In the treatment, as the imaginary relation between the analyst and the patient developed, so also did Yves’ phantasies about the analyst where his voyeurism was transferred to the analyst’s legs. He tells her that cure for him would be to have sexual intercourse with her. The analyst interprets this attempt at seduction as a displacement of the phallic mother onto her - a denouement that comes to be revealed as the trigger for the passage à l’acte to the voyeuristic practices engaged in by the patient. As stated, these voyeuristic practices in the cinema toilets ended when Yves is disturbed by an attendant.

In the account of the case, the analysis comes to an end with the removal of the symptom. The patient is no longer anxious about his height. He no longer walks with his head bent to the ground. He has a permanent job and gets on well with his boss and colleagues. He returns to his mistress but is aware that the liaison has no future. However, there is a final message for the analyst – Yves misses his last session, using the money instead to visit a prostitute. Like Kris’ patient searching for fresh brains,[14] Yves looks elsewhere for what he has not found in his analysis.

What lessons for the trainee analyst?

Freud’s words – ‘Not to try to understand everything at once, but to give a kind of unbiased attention to every point that arises and to await further developments’[15] - come to mind. Unconscious knowledge is always on the side of the analysand. Beware of wild analysis, Freud warns us, because the analyst does not know. Lacan reminds us that the analyst, in the patient’s imaginings, is the ‘one supposed to know’ this being the lure that draws the analysand into the transference. The work of the analyst – interpretation – is to evoke unconscious material upon which the analysand works to gain access to what he knows unbeknownst to himself.

In the case under discussion, the imaginary effects do not allow the patient’s question about lack, about his sexual identity or his place in the world to emerge. And while Lacan praises the work of Lebovici with her patient he concludes that ‘Any contribution to the deciphering of the unconscious is truly minimal - so much so that most of it remains intact in the incystation of the enigma which under the label of transitory perversion constitutes the object of this instructive communication.’[16]

In Seminar IV and The Direction of the Treatment Lacan is warning about the decline in technique and the errant paths psychoanalysis has taken into object-relations and ego psychology. Lacan is passionate to show analysts the true place in which analytic effects are produced. The analyst interprets to evoke unconscious material, to mobilise desire and not to provide explanation. The analyst listens for the unconscious speaking in the non-sense of the symptom, of the dream, of the word.

What is incorrect interpretation?

In his critique of Lebovici’s position, Lacan tells us what interpretation is not. This case study is clinically rich – there are many dreams, many interpretations. The analyst interprets with certainty, yet uncertainty wins out, making her ask whether her key interpretation was correct or not. The use of the signifier appears to be missing, with its evocations of sense - as generated by the laws of the unconscious, its condensations and displacements - absent. Interpretation aims at ambivalence. Faced with the certitude of his analyst, Yves is boxed in – there is no room for his question with regard to his sexuality to emerge or for him to engage with his subjective division or his desire. He had no option but to act out – it was a necessary defence.


[1] Lebovici, R. ‘Transitory Sexual Perversion in the Course of a Psychoanalytic Treatment.’ (1956). Belgium, Bulletin d’activites de l’Association des Pychanalyses de Belgique 25, 1956. pp.1-15. Trans. D. Nobus. Journal Lacanian Studies 2(1) pp.118-140 (2004), p.130.

[2] Lebovici, R. op.cit.

[3] ibid. p.118.

[4] ibid. p.123.

[5] Freud, S. ‘A Child is Being Beaten’: A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions (1919). Standard Edition, XVII, London, Hogarth Press. pp.174-204

[6] Lacan, J. Le Seminaire. Livre IV. La relation d’objet, 1956-57, Ed J-A. Miller, Paris, Seuil. session of 19 December 1956

[7] Lacan, J. The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power (1958) Ecrits. Trans. C. Gallagher at

[8] Lacan, J. Le Seminaire. Livre IV. La relation d’objet, 1956-57. Session of 19 December 1956. My own translation from an unpublished version of the seminar.

[9] Freud, S. Three Essays on The Theory of Sexuality, (1905). Standard Edition, VII, London, Hogarth Press. pp.123-243.

[10] Lacan, J. The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power (1958). op.cit. p. 30.

[11] Lacan, J. Le Seminaire. Livre IV. La relation d’objet, 1956-57. Session of 19 December 1956. op. cit.

[12] Lacan, J. Seminar V. Formations of the Unconscious, 1957-58, Trans. C. Gallagher,

[13] Freud, S. Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-old Boy (1909). Standard Edition X. London, Hogarth Press. pp.1-147.

[14] Lacan, J. The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power (1958) Ecrits. Trans. C. Gallagher. Unpublished translation. p.17.

[15] Freud, S. Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-old Boy (1909). op.cit. p. 65.

[16] Lacan, J. The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power (1958). op.cit. p. 31.

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